Legitimating Television: An Unofficial Book Review


One of the great gifts of sabbatical is having the time to read books that are not immediately required for teaching or manuscript reviews. I’ve taken advantage of that by reading some fiction (and would highly recommend D.B. Weiss’s Lucky Wander Boy if you’re into classic videogames and/or metafiction), as well as some scholarship. In the latter category, I want to both recommend and respond to Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine’s new book Legitimating Television: Media Convergence & Cultural Status. I agree with 90% of what they argue, and around half of their points were so good that I wish I had written them myself. I have no doubt that it will become a must-read book for contemporary television scholarship, and I hope their ideas and analyses are taken up and engaged with broadly. In short, if you’re reading my blog, you should read this book.

However… it’s the 10% where we disagree that I’ll focus on here. A few contextualizations are important first. The authors are good friends of mine from graduate school, and we remain in-touch online and always enjoy catching up at conferences. Thus knowing them and our relationship, I take the fact that they directly engage with and argue against some of my work in the book as a sign of respect (and hope they view this response in the same spirit, as I’ve invited them to continue the dialog here). Second, I will try to separate out my issues with the way they discuss my work and my take on their broader arguments. I’m sure an ungenerous reader could look at my response and write it off as sour grapes, but again, I highly recommend most of the book. Finally, this response will be part of a larger argument I’ll be making in a presentation next month at a the conference Cultural Distinctions Remediated at University of Hannover, so I will point toward larger arguments still to come, and welcome feedback to help me craft that talk.

Newman & Levine’s book is primarily a discursive analysis of how, over the last 20 years or so, American television has been culturally legitimated above its traditional “lowbrow” status, and a consideration of the cultural impacts of such discourses of legitimation. They do excellent historical work charting transformations in technology, critical discourses, programming strategies, and notions of authorship, mapping a compelling terrain of how we think about television today. I think their portrait of such discourses is quite strong, comprising the bulk of the book that I fully endorse, and they make a strong argument that we need to make such discursive formations visible in order to be aware of and counter underlying assumptions and implications that often remain hidden. My main quibble lies in what we’re supposed to do with this discursive history.

The book links the discourses of legitimation to structures of gender and class, highlighting how television has traditionally been feminized and stigmatized as lowbrow, arguing that recent legitimation practices work to masculinize and “class up” television. While I think this is correct, I do not see it as a self-evident problem to be avoided at all costs like Newman & Levine seem to, as suggested by the book’s final words: “We love television. But legitimizing that love at such a cost? Paying for the legitimation of the medium through a perpetuation of hierarchies of taste and cultural value and inequalities of class and gender? No” (171). Implied in this conclusion and their analysis throughout is a choice: we (as scholars, critics and viewers) can either embrace legitimation and its concomitant reinforcement of cultural hierarchies, or we can reject it, with the latter framed as the more politically progressive choice.

But that’s a false dichotomy. Rejecting legitimation discourse does not seem to me like a progressive move, as it simply reinforces other cultural hierarchies that still persist—their knock on legitimation seems to be in large part that it fails to counter, and subtly reinforces, pre-existing hierarchies of gender and class. But to me, rejecting legitimation doesn’t seem to challenge those assumptions as much as just leaving them in place; I’m in no way convinced that pre-legitimation was “better” than post-legitimation, so it ends up being a choice between two problems. The book spends its energy convincingly pointing out many of the embedded cultural assumptions present in legitimation discourse, but does not truly offer another option for how to engage with these issues except to point out their constructedness. Instead, we’re left with a can’t win scenario of either embracing a discourse they show to be built on regressive assumptions, or rely on previous cultural norms also built on regressive assumptions.

I think this gap is due a mistaken framing about how discursive formations work: they are not balloons that pop when they are shown to be social constructions, but rather are the only way we make sense of the world. Throughout the book, Newman & Levine examine sites of legitimation discourse and conclude their analyses by highlighting how gender and class hierarchies are embedded in these cultural formations, using this insight as a pin to pop the discursive balloon. But just because a discourse is not “truth” does not mean that it is not “true,” or at least has useful explanatory power—yes, the celebration of single-camera sitcoms marginalizes the tradition of multi-camera comedy via an implicit class distinction, but we can’t simply invalidate such shows or critical appreciations of them because of such discursive framing. For me, there is no place outside of discourse, so analyzing and acknowledging the constructedness of a discourse does not mean we must reject it. Instead, we need to come up with reflexive critical methods that acknowledge such constructions and avoid totalizing claims, while still making arguments within the discursive frames we have to work with.

What I wanted from the book that I did not get was a third way to discuss television’s cultural legitimation, moving beyond either accepting legitimation discourses of quality television and progress, or rejecting them as illegitimate or ungrounded. (In my talk at Hannover, I hope to offer such a third approach, specifically concerning cultural evaluation.) In the book’s final pages, they gesture toward some scholarship that they think does this, but do not detail how such approaches truly differ from the examples they hold up as problematic—I know most of the work they reference, and don’t really see how such works “examine convergence-era television without echoing broader discourses of legitimation” while other work they critique falls prey to such pitfalls (170). I would have appreciated a conclusion that models the type of analysis they are calling for, rather than ending by rejecting a body of scholarship that they see as lacking; arguably the bulk of the book offers such a model, but since it is framed as a meta-analysis it seems to be an unlikely prototype for future work.

This leads to how my own work is addressed in the book, mostly through the book’s final chapter on “Television Scholarship And/As Legitimation.” Again, I take it as a sign of respect that they take time to engage with my ideas and writing (and note that many of their references to my work are supportive and laudatory), and am happy to continue the conversation. However, I was disappointed in some of the choices they made in what they quoted and how they framed some of my points – I don’t want to be defensive in nit-picking their use of my work, but I want to contextualize and counter some of their characterizations, as well as redirecting the discussion toward other works that they do not engage with directly.

I was happy that Newman & Levine discussed my writing about the relationships between primetime and daytime serials, as Levine is an expert on soap operas (and one of my valued informers I’ve consulted with when writing about the genre). While they critiqued the way I distinguish between primetime and daytime serials, suggesting that I am devaluing soaps by “den[ying] an abiding influence or affinity between them” (166), they themselves outline a number of ways that primetime serials differ from soap opera form and content, such as privileging endings or disavowing relationship melodrama. Elsewhere, I have written at length about the gaps between these two formats, based on hopefully analytic claims about formal strategies and generic norms, but rather than arguing with these claims of influence or similarity, Newman & Levine conflate my analytic argument with an evaluative one. Likewise, in a footnote they dismiss my claim that I have not seen any evidence suggesting that primetime producers are directly influenced by soap operas, but they do not offer any evidence to the contrary documenting such influence. I would love to discuss the claims we both make about issues of influence and formal distinctions between daytime and primetime, but was disappointed with the limited way they treated this topic in their final chapter – I’m not insisting that I’m correct in my analysis, but I’d like to engage the questions we both raise in more depth.

In discussing my work on narrative complexity, they write: “[Mittell] states that he is not making an ‘explicitly evaluative’ claim about the worth of narrative complexity over ‘conventional programming.’ Still, one suspects that Mittell wants to assert that ‘the pleasures potentially offered by complex narratives are richer and more multifaceted than conventional programming’ but refrains from doing so overtly in this context” (163). Here’s the full quote they draw from, in my essay on narrative complexity:

Arguably, the pleasures potentially offered by complex narratives are richer and more multifaceted than conventional programming, but value judgments should be tied to individual programs rather than claiming the superiority of an entire narrational mode or genre. Thus while we should not shy away from evaluative dimensions in narrative transformations, the goal of my analysis is not to argue that contemporary television is somehow better than it was in the 1970s but rather to explore how and why narrative strategies have changed and to consider the broader cultural implications of this shift. (30)

I see a crucial distinction here – I am suggesting that we avoid evaluations at the level of genre or mode, yet they suggest that I am arguing for such evaluations under the dubious implicative phrasing of “one suspects.”

In the next paragraph, they quote two more sources to indicate how I’m complicit with legitimation discourses: a parenthetical aside in a piece I wrote for Flow where I admit to teaching television “that I think is great” in part to cultivate and broaden students’ tastes, and a promotional video I did for Middlebury College’s Meet the Faculty series, in which I do use “Golden Age” rhetoric explicitly. I think the latter quote is a bit unfair, as such videos are clearly different from the formal scholarship I have published on the topic, or even the more casual realm of blog posts—in such a short soundbite-y video, I couldn’t really go into the way I view cultural evaluation as discursively constructed and contingent, and the video producer explicitly asked me to respond to the Golden Age question (and I have never published anything where I call contemporary television a “Golden Age”). Thus even though they used words I spoke or wrote, I feel like my work was framed highly selectively to cast me in a role that feels more simplistic than deserved.

Regardless of what quotations they use to paint me as an unselfconscious legitimator, my real disappointment was what they didn’t engage with from my work. Beyond the issues of soap opera form I referenced above, I had hoped they would tackle some of my arguments in defense of evaluative scholarship, which (I assume) would feed into their analysis of legitimation discourses. For instance, in “Lost in a Great Story” (an article in their bibliography, but not specifically discussed in the book), I wrote:

I don’t yearn for a day in which television studies publishes a definitive canonical list delineating the best of television once and for all, but I relish the opportunity to openly debate the value of programs without suggesting that all evaluations are equally justifiable as idiosyncratic personal taste or simple ideological manifestations. Just because aesthetics can be done in a way that disenfranchises some positions does not require the evacuation of evaluative claims altogether in the name of an egalitarian (and I believe ultimately dishonest) poetics of inclusion…. In offering my own evaluative criticism here, I am not trying to convince anyone that Lost is the essence of television, or the pinnacle of the medium’s artistic possibilities. But it is a great show, and I wish to explore why. I hope to model a mode of evaluative criticism that avoids the universalistic and canonistic tendencies that other fields have been fighting over for decades. I imagine an explicit awareness of the practices of evaluation in all spheres of television creation and consumption, including a discussion and defense of our own taste practices. Such a mode of evaluation would not seek to make taste judgments the final words of a debate, but openings of a discussion. What makes shows like Buffy and Lost so appealing to scholars? How do criteria of cultural politics and poetics intersect or conflict? How might we account for our own shifts in taste as tied to changing cultural contexts, textual exposures, formal education, and transformed aesthetics? What might a non-foundational aesthetics of television look like, and how might we use such contingent evaluations in our teaching and scholarship? Just because we want to avoid the flaws of traditional aesthetic criticism doesn’t mean we cannot imagine a more sophisticated, historically-aware—and yes, better—way to place evaluation on the agenda of television studies and proudly acknowledge and examine our own tastes. (129-131)

I’m pretty sure Newman & Levine would disagree with these ideas, but I hope it would be a better argument than quoting from a promotional video to reductively characterize my position—perhaps we can have such a discussion here.

So in the end, I found the book disappointing, not paying off the excellent work of the first seven chapters by resorting to some underwhelming & poorly (or at least only partially) substantiated claims about my and other scholar’s positions. More importantly, their conclusion doesn’t show us how to move forward with these topics, except to always be aware of potential implications of legitimating discourses and reject their totalizing tendencies (which I would claim I and others are already doing). It’s one of my pet peeves that scholars should offer more positive models rather than negative critiques of each others’ work, and thus I felt like the final chapter undermined some of the positive work of most of the book. As mentioned before, I hope to continue this conversation, both in my future work charting out a more productive approach to evaluative scholarship, and in the comment thread here where hopefully the book’s authors and readers can discuss these issues in depth.

10 Responses to “Legitimating Television: An Unofficial Book Review”

  1. 1 Mobina Hashmi

    Jason, as always, an interesting and provocative contribution! I haven’t had a chance to read “Legitimating Television” yet, but reading this review and having read and taught your work over the years, I wonder if the distinction isn’t between accepting/rejecting legitimation discourse, but between a more narrowly-defined “Television Studies” and a more broadly-defined “Television and Cultural Studies”? The formal, evaluative, analytic approach to television narrative, genre and aesthetics is incredibly helpful in understanding how textual/institutional meanings are produced, but it doesn’t really tell us much about either why we care about these meanings or how these meanings enter into broader cultural discourses (yes, about race, class, gender and all that good stuff) about distinction, hierarchy, and, the p-word, power.

    I think we would all agree that there meaning/sense-making happens in discursive formations and that realizing they are social constructions only helps us appreciate how they operate. It does not make us think we are outside discourse. But, the question is which discursive formations are we willing to engage with? Academic valuation is a powerful discourse in its own right. So, to see the emergence of a sub-field that is focused on evaluative criticism has to raise questions about how that sub-field is articulated to broader discourses of power in the academy and about how that sub-field functions relative to other fields. We all talk about how, for example, old-school political economy and cultural studies approaches did not co-exist happily side-by-side with room enough for all. They exerted pressure on each other and engaged in a power struggle as a hegemonic model. You are arguing against a certain refusal to make value judgments about texts and about genres which was effective in marginalizing other approaches. But, I think that refusal came less from an “egalitarian..poetics of inclusion” as from a suspicion of the political uses of aesthetic evaluation. In a discussion of taste practices, e.g. of the question you raise in “Lost in a Great Story,” about “[w]hat makes shows like Buffy and Lost so appealing to scholars,” I would ask which scholars are you talking about? An attachment to those shows, especially that cluster of shows, places the scholar/fan in a particular subject-position which would be interesting to interrogate in an examination of taste. To use one of Bourdieu’s greatest-hits quotes, “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.”

    • Mobina,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. And I agree that there are key differences between cultural studies scholarship focused on television, and television studies scholarship using a cultural studies approach. Personally, I think Newman & Levine’s book straddles these two modes, while most of my work is in the latter category. And there’s room for all of these approaches, and hopefully they talk to one another productively without setting up unnecessary divides – as we all know from graduate school, no single piece of scholarship can do everything, so it’s important to allow for & learn from work that doesn’t try to do it all.

      I think one of the great challenges is figuring out how to carve out an approach that isn’t explicitly focused on questions of power, identity, or the like, but that doesn’t ignore them either. I know I’ve struggled with that in my own work, especially as I roll out smaller parts of a larger project, as I don’t think it’s useful to eat up a word count with endless caveats. It’s still a learning process!

  2. 3 Michael Newman and Elana Levine

    While we are grateful for your attention to our book and for the opportunity to discuss it, we also find, unfortunately, that this review mischaracterizes our argument and gives the wrong impression of our project. It attributes to us positions we never take and argues with these weak ideas rather than with our actual claims. We do not propose that everyone must choose either to legitimate television or to oppose its legitimation – it’s not an either/or situation — and we do not present the related idea that analyzing and criticizing a discourse or showing it to be a social construction pops a discursive balloon. We aren’t sure what this metaphor means, but let’s say we are supposed to think that a discourse’s power disperses, like helium gas into the air, when challenged (popped) by a scholarly critic. This is not a point we would ever make. In fact, we are explicit in stating that legitimation is a dominant contemporary frame, a new hegemonic common sense which, of course, makes it basically impossible to “pop” or to escape from. Rather, we aim to denaturalize legitimation discourses and reveal their underlying politics as a way of understanding them and mounting a critical argument about their social functions. We make no pretense that this work somehow makes these legitimation discourses go away. We also argue in Chapter 8 that the very existence of TV studies, of our very book and our very careers, are indebted to legitimation — our work also legitimates television. However, we will not embrace a discourse that we find objectionable even if we have no choice but to live with it. Should we embrace legitimation because of its pervasiveness and inevitability any more than we should embrace patriarchy or capitalism because of theirs?

    We also do not present the alternatives of accepting the new discourse or accepting the one that preceded it – this is nowhere in our writing. Our argument is actually that the legitimation of television depends on the same discursive oppositions between passivity and activity, femininity and masculinity, mass culture and elite culture, etc., that have long kept television low on the cultural hierarchy. We certainly never suggest that the discourse of the old days would be preferable to that of the present. This set of false alternatives is supposed to support your claim that “rejecting legitimation discourse does not seem… like a progressive move, as it simply reinforces other cultural hierarchies that still persist.” We don’t see it this way; being critical of the culture of our times doesn’t imply a preference for any other culture in particular. Imagining a different culture isn’t on our agenda – our project is history, not fantasy.

    Perhaps most surprising to us, this review challenges the significance of our claims about issues of social power by asserting that the masculinization and upscaling of TV is not “a self-evident problem to be avoided at all costs.” While “at all costs” makes this sound rather dramatic, “self-evident” indicates that we never explain or defend this stance. You also write that in our book, we “conclude [our] analyses by highlighting how gender and class hierarchies are embedded in these cultural formations, using this insight as a pin to pop the discursive balloon.” This makes it sound like our book presents a description of legitimation unconcerned with its cultural implications until the end, when we link it to issues of power and identity in our effort to supposedly make legitimation go away. In actuality, we weave our points about class and gender throughout the book. For instance, Chapter 5, about serialized dramas, is concerned with the ways that discourses of prime time serialization (textual, industrial, critical, scholarly) are dependent upon the distinction from soap opera, and to point to that distinction as a gendered one. (The point of the analysis of serialization is not, however, to prove or disprove the connection between daytime and prime time serialization.) The rationale for arguing that gender and class implications of legitimation are problematic is made clear in Chapter 1. It goes like this: culture is political, and cultural tastes, while appearing to be natural expressions of individual preference, operate to maintain distinctions between groups of greater and lesser social power. If, as we argue, the legitimation of television is premised on the elevation of the masculine over the feminine and the elite over the mass, it has a function of reproducing an unequal and unjust social structure. This may not be self-evident, but it is something we say explicitly and at some length in Chapter 1 and reinforce in every chapter of the book.

    As for “what we’re supposed to do with this discursive history”: why not just understand it? We didn’t set out to make a new way of studying television or to propose a plan of action. In writing the final chapter, we purposefully avoided prescribing approaches and topics, and made no ambition of modeling any particular kind of analysis (or meta-analysis?). Our book is primarily a historical account describing and analyzing ideas about TV in the era of convergence. To the extent that television scholars participate in the wider circulation of ideas about TV and play an important part in this circulation, it treats TV studies as a site of analysis – not just scholarly writing, but other forms including course titles and the “meet the faculty” video, which is a very important kind of text, investing the authority of the academic institution in the discourses under consideration. We point out the presence of legitimation discourses in many different scholars’ work to show the continuity of discourses from popular and industrial sites to academic ones. Our aim in these discussions is not to tell others what to study or not to study (though we do encourage self-reflexivity and caution), but to analyze the discourses. We say that TV scholars can, as we try to, endeavor to approach this new common sense critically. But this is pretty much the extent of our proposal, and the overwhelming majority of our energy even in Chapter 8 is devoted to analysis. (In our introduction we do name a number of possible research topics for those interested in studying the legitimation of television, but this is to illustrate the limits of our project’s scope rather than to propose a new approach.) If our book ends up being a model for some in pursuing future work, we would be quite flattered. We hope it puts legitimation on the table as something scholars consider in their writing about TV, but in terms of methods and approach, our work follows (we hope) in the tradition of scholars such as Lynn Spigel and William Boddy who have already established a good way of doing the kind of work we have tried to do.

    • Mike & Elana,

      Thanks for taking the time to reply & converse about your project. I’m sorry you saw my reading as a “misrepresentation” – I was trying to relay what I took away from the book (which again was 90% positive – far more than most scholarly books I read!), so perhaps I misunderstood some points and/or didn’t explain myself that well. (I wish we had the ability to talk within the margins of the book about particular passages rather than in this format of blocked comments detached from the object of discussion, but it’ll have to do.)

      To clarify a few points: First, perhaps I overstated the “choice” option – it came most in your concluding paragraphs, which read as an outright rejection of legitimation to me (but without a clear alternative offered). And I definitely did not mean to imply that the issues of class & gender only emerge in the conclusion – they clearly do not, and many of your great analyses highlight these elements (when I wrote “…conclude their analyses by highlighting…” I specifically meant in each chapter, but it reads vaguely). What I meant by the “balloon pop” metaphor was that in chronicling & critiquing such discursive formations, you highlight these underlying political ramifications in a way that seem to use politics to “pop” the illusion of the discourse’s common sense-ness, not make it disappear.

      But my big concern was what is left after the discourse has been denaturalized? How do we move on talking about a show, genre, or technology that has been convincingly shown to be grounded upon & perpetuating these dangerous assumptions? How do you analyze such topics without embracing legitimation? It felt to me that you were claiming that work that continues to analyze such topics without focusing primarily on their political ramifications was simply a continuation of the problem, but I would argue there are things of significance to say about such topics beyond (but not blind to) political analysis.

      As I said in my comment to Mobina above, I think trying to thread this needle is incredibly difficult – and thus my disappointment in the book is that the final chapter seems to dismiss a lot of scholarship based on selective quotes & partial accounts without submitting the more productive models you hold up to similar scrutiny, or offer a more fleshed out model for what “self-reflexivity and caution” looks like. While, yes, scholars are part of the discursive formation, most of us whom you critique are often self-reflexive & cautious (and most of those whom you praise are sometimes not). Thus I think when dealing with a body of scholarship, especially within a field you know so well, I think there should be a higher standard of discursive analysis. And I thought the missed opportunity in an otherwise excellent book is to help generate productive answers and models as to how to move the discussion forward, rather than (perhaps unintentionally) encouraging people to wrap themselves in caveats and potentially avoid tackling particular topics.

      Thanks again for coming here to chat about the book – I’m happy to continue the conversation (and hopefully many others will read it & continue debating its arguments)!

  3. 5 Ron Becker

    This is an interesting and I think important conversation. Thanks Jason, Mobina, Mike and Elana. I have read Legitimating Television (and recommend it highly!).

    I would echo Mobina’s suggestion that we might be seeing the emergence of a substantive split within the field. Of course, to identify such a split is certainly to make an argument, not merely an observation. While Legitimating Television does NOT make this argument at all, I would argue that the exchange here is symptomatic of the fact that people have differing approaches to the study of television—different investments in certain questions and lines of inquiry. In some ways, that is an utterly banal observation since media scholars always have different investments. But sometimes those differences are so “significant” (or rather are seen as so significant by certain people) that they mark some fundamental difference for them. For me, a defining characteristic of the field of media and cultural studies (the field I “identify” with) puts the interrogation of power and media’s imbrication within relations of social, economic and cultural power at the center of analysis. Not all work on TV does this, nor does it have to do it. But I would assert that such work is not doing the media and cultural studies scholarship–at least as I see it. I use the term “identify” here to underscore that these dynamics are a form of “identity politics” (here, of professional identity). As such, they are imbricated within relations of power as well.

    Of course people will argue that there is no value in drawing such lines. And the debate will likely get even more heated when scholars disagree on what “the interrogation of power” looks like. Just such a disagreement seemed to be at the heart of the political economy/cultural studies debates. Having explicit conversations about those differing views can be valuable (helping to clarify our notions of power/politics); they might also be frustrating, since they may reveal that we have fundamentally different conceptualizations of power/politics and/or different ideas about what kind of work is best described as TV studies or TV and cultural studies.

    I look forward to reading Jason’s proposal for a third way. I hope that the kind of evaluative criticism that has emerged recently can dovetail productively into work that interrogates media’s imbrication within relations of power as I conceive them.


    • Ron,

      Thanks for joining the conversation (which really should be happening on the Terrace in Madison!). I agree that this is potentially a split within the field (and also agree that this is not the topic or argument of the book), but I would hope that it functions more as distinct areas of interest & emphasis, rather than subfields exerting orthodoxies. Right now, it fields like most faculty positions within television studies are generalists, needing to teach across eras, genres, methods, and perhaps even nations. While there are certainly topics & approaches that I am not particularly invested in as a researcher, I recognize that I need to treat them all with respect as a teacher & colleague. While certainly there are disagreements, I think one of the great benefits of our field is the ability to talk through them respectfully – but we all know fields where that’s not the case. So I hope that as the field grows (hopefully) and specialties become more distinct (inevitability), we can all debate productively about differences, but as a field focus more on what we share.

      (And we can agree that anyone reading this should read Legitimating Television as a great conversational launchpad…)

  1. 1 Jason Mittell’s Third Way: A Preview | initiative für interdisziplinäre medienforschung
  2. 2 The Qualities of Complexity: Aesthetic Evaluation in Contemporary Television « Just TV
  3. 3 Book Review: Legitimating Television by Newman and Levine « Media Milieus
  4. 4 Complex TV: Evaluation « Just TV

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